I’m going to see the Franz West retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art tomorrow. I’m feeling full of the participatory, Westian spirit, so I’ll Twitter my visit to the show. Click here to follow my tweets.
Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
Archive for October, 2008
So what to do with Alexandra Peers’ gloom-is-here story in yesterday’s WSJ?
Peers argues that the sky is falling for American art museums. That’s certainly the conventional wisdom. Here’s the real story: So far the sky is still in good shape.
Yes, some museums will have to trim some expenses: Five percent here and there. Under-endowed museums may trim a bit more. That is not a crisis, that’s not “trouble” and that is not a particularly “tough toll.” (Arts people might want to read the whole paper: “Trouble” and a “tough toll” is when an entire American industry — say, the auto industry — is on the brink of extinction.) Or think of it this way: A non-profit cutting five percent of expenses during a recession isn’t a crisis, it’s standard operating procedure.
As if to prove my point, Peers cites a bunch of weak, often speculative examples:
- The Parrish Museum is waiting to begin a construction project until it raises more money. That’s not a sign of doom, it’s prudence;
- The Nelson-Atkins is trimming hours. That’s true, but a minor adjustment in hours is hardly a sign of crisis;
- New York museums in particular are accustomed to raising lots of money from bankers. Who knows what will happen with them now. True. But that’s about donors, not about museums. (Yet. Plus there’s no data to indicate massive problems with donor follow-through, and the only museum staffer Peers found who would address that question shrugged it off.)
In fact, Peers only cites one museum facing major problems: The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu. Peers’ line about Honolulu is the best independent clause in her story… and it is almost immediately followed by the most ridiculous: “the Museum of Modern Art in New York has instituted a hiring freeze and
won’t host any parties at Art Basel Miami Beach this year.” That’s a sign of a “tough toll?” Are you kidding me?)
I’d argue that the real story here is that the top 50 or so American art museums are so well-run that that 45 (or more) of them are well-positioned to weather this recession. That’s a sign of an industry’s health, not a sign of pending crisis. (In a related story, a few months ago a major business magazine asked me to write a version of Peers’ story. I reported it and found little cause for gloom and doom. The magazine, expecting cultural carnage, killed the piece.) However, that brings me to my last point…
So far Peers’ story is just goofy, a misguided waste of space. It becomes journalistically embarrassing when you consider this: Peers and the WSJ run a whole story on woe-is-the-museum and they missed — flat, completely missed — the one major American museum that actually is facing doom-and-gloom: The Detroit Institute of Arts. Oops.
- Add your own fave Obama art to this BuzzFeed page.
- Yes but no but yes.
- Obama street art: 1,293 strong on Flickr.
- The Obama Art Report — a blog about Obama art.
- Artists for Obama: Blue-chip work for MoveOn and the NAACP Voter Fund.
- Gemini G.E.L.’s Artists for Obama, featuring prints by Johns, Serra and Marden. The images are here.
- Eva Holland with lots of pics of Obama-themed street art, design, etc.
- The Obama Craft Project.
- The Warhol/Nixon/McCain t-shirt? [via]
A few weeks ago I noticed that Greg Allen had dipped into the Obama store to buy for a Jonathan Hoefler print. I wondered: Is any of the work at the Obama campaign’s Artists for Obama site any, well, good?
First: What is this Artists for Obama part of the Obama store anyway? It’s just like any other prints store: For a ‘donation’ of $60-$2,500, you can buy a limited-edition print with an Obama theme. A really clear, beat-you-over-the-head-with-it CHANGE-style Obama theme. (Note: The Obama store’s efforts are different from approximately umpteen other ‘artists for Obama’ sites and efforts. I’ll have links to many of those this afternoon.)
The Obama store features Rafael Lopez, Lance Wyman, Gui Borchert, Robert Indiana, Lou Stovall, Antar Dayal, Scott Hansen, Shepard Fairey and Hoefler. (Work by unlinked artists is sold out.) Most of the work tends more toward graphic design or illustration rather than art — no surprise given that it’s made as a campaign fundraiser.
The Hoefler is the best piece. It vaguely reminds me of a reverse-Ligon, but with a hopeful Obaman twist. It also recalls the opening of a sci-fi film, perhaps the animated opening to Star Wars. It’s also blue. Blue is the Obama campaign color. Blue tends to look good on things. It’s really quite nice.
The Indiana is, of course, a riff on Indiana’s famous Love. Love, hope, same diff. The Lopez is classic illustration-with-a-sunburst. It almost screams out si se puede. The Dayal is more of the same. The Wyman is 1970s graphic design retro-cool. It’s catchy, but it’s more Emerson, Lake and Palmer than Led Zeppelin. The Borchet seems to be inspired by a blog-style word-cloud. The Stovall is, er, probably printed with NutraSweet, an unfortunate reminder that too much hope-speak can mask substance. The Hansen looks like it’s ready to be an iced tea label, but heck, everyone likes iced tea. And of course, the Fairey-for-the-campaign is very Obey (the Giant Obama head).
Notably: None of it is about the other guy, a la Warhol’s Vote McGovern.
Related: Have your own favorite Obama art? Share it on BuzzFeed.
Today Doug Wheeler is 69. He lives in New Mexico, on the San Ildefonso Pueblo near Santa Fe. He has a studio there and he can park his plane nearby. (He flies around the way some of us drive. Among his regular trips is the flight from New Mexico to California, where his wife lives.) Wheeler is surrounded by friends: Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, Ken Price, Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg all have places nearby. He sees each of them a few times a year. And he is still making work.
“I’m working on something now I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” Wheeler told me. “It’s about space, but then again space has always been the main thing I care about, how I can create in a space. The twisting and the torsional qualities I can give to a space. Now I’m trying to activate space in a different way than I have before, and hopefully get out of the same arena Irwin and Turrell were all mixed up in. I love to be in that same company, but we’ll see. It’s risky. But still I am who I am. I’ll still do a lot of these big projects along with you-wouldn’t-be-surprised kind of things.”
One of the things that Wheeler has been working on involves how sound impacts our perception of space. It’s not a totally new concept for him — he’s made drawings that relate to that idea since at least the mid-1970s. Wheeler also created some pieces that Panza owns that deal with microwave absorbers. “They trap sound so that you have a really silent place,” Wheeler said. “They’ve never been realized so they’re things that — other than working with them in my studio — they’ve never actually been. The Guggenheim owns one, I think.”
As we were winding down our chat, I asked Wheeler how much art history and his place in it matters to him, how much he thinks about it, whether he’s frustrated at how scholars seem to forget that he was as much a part of the beginning of Light and Space as anyone.
“You know, I completely keep away,” he said. “I don’t know why. I never felt that I had a home [in the art world] so I just don’t… It’s like this: You are an artist regardless. You can’t do things that can damage that, so I don’t do things that will damage that. If that means I’m completely unknown that’s OK with me so long as I don’t lose my love for what I do.
“I had to make choices a long time ago that people told me I was crazy about. I turned down Leo Castelli, which was crazy. But the situation would have been one that I was subject to a kind of control. I didn’t want that. I could see the control he had over his artists. He explained to me why he picked the people he picked. He had this whole elaborate scheme of how he did things. It was brilliant, but at that place in my life I couldn’t keep taking one step forward and ten back. I couldn’t do that anymore.
“As far as the art world, I don’t know. I don’t see scholarship in it. So I lost faith in it. My job is to make what I make, and if I want to do that or not. Then, do I want to share that or not. So it’s kind of like that.
“I have a number of things I really hope I can do, but I’m not good at courting the people I need to court. Rich people I don’t really like very much, so it’s kind of like that. I don’t need to prove anything at this point in my life. I do what I can do and if I can, that’s fine. I went to art school to be an advertising person and after I while I felt, ‘this is all messed up.’ Then I got my first offers from two major ad firms in New York. I had to make this decision, was this what I really want to do? And I thought I’d make art. I won’t make money but I’ll be in really great company. That was my decision.
“So that’s kind of where I’m at. I burned bridges because I don’t give in very easily. Later in life I have compromised some, but not enough I guess. At least not as much as people would like. It’s kind of what you have to do, you have to do the best you can possibly do. I guess I’m always striving for perfection but I know I’ll never get to that.”
[Photo at top: Wheeler's Eindhoven Environmental Light Installation (1969), on view now at the Hirshhorn.]
A few weeks ago I noted that a couple of museums were beginning to explore making content more available via the web: LACMA posted a few catalogue essays, lots of museums now have Flickr streams, and so on.
Here’s a logical next step: Putting old, long out-of-print exhibition catalogues online, Google Books-style. LACMA, which has apparently decided to challenge the Indianapolis Museum of Art for the title of Most Web-Creative Museum, has launched an entire site dedicated to its 1967-71 Art & Technology project. You can browse the project online artist by artist or you can download the project catalogue as a PDF. At LACMA’s Unframed blog, Tom Drury discusses why the whole project is exceptional. (Aside: Why don’t more museums put old catalogues/scholarship online this way? No idea. Who wouldn’t love to see all of Arthur Wheelock’s Dutch art publications at one URL? I asked LACMA if it was possible to break out the cost of the A&T–>WWW project, and LACMA said it wasn’t.)
In a related story, the project is substantially funded by the Getty. For years critics (including me) had complained that the Getty was lousy at being a part of the Los Angeles art scene, that hiltopping was in danger of becoming an intransitive verb with its etymological roots in Gettian behavior. But as Suzanne Muchnic first reported in the LAT on Sunday, that’s changing as the Getty funds a series of major art historical shows throughout Los Angeles. Next step for the Getty: Funding not just exhibitions but enabling collecting at some of those museums.
Related: When Jim Wood took over the Getty, he talked with me about the importance of the Getty coming down from the hill. And in his very next breath, he talked about collecting. Suzanne Muchnic on LA’s art-historical awakening.
In the early 1970s Doug Wheeler was a Light and Space darling who exhibited across the United States and Europe. He was featured in shows not only in the U.S., but at the Stedelijk, the Tate and the Moderna Musset. Then, as quickly as he’d emerged, Wheeler seemingly disappeared. As James Turrell and Robert Irwin continued to exhibit widely, the art historical narrative around Light and Space focused around them and increasingly excluded Wheeler. So what happened?
There’s no one reason. For a year and a half Wheeler and his wife moved to Italy, to oversee a plan of Panza’s to turn empty Italian ‘castles’ into places where Panza’s contemporary art collection could be shown. That ambitious plan failed when Panza came under attack for owning too many American and European artists, and not enough Italians. Wheeler left Italy and moved back to California, where he had studios in Ocean Park and in Venice. Before long he gave up Los Angeles for New Mexico, where he lives now.
Over the last 20 years Wheeler has spent little time focusing on exhibiting in commercial spaces. Regardless, he’s never stopped making art and designing new environments. (More on that tomorrow.) Wheeler’s most recent museum commission was for a Panza-related show at the Bilbao Guggenheim in 2000.
“They delayed the opening and I kept working on it,” Wheeler said. “Then they started letting people in anyway. I was flummoxed by that. Then a woman came in, very attractive, with her son. He was only so big [about four feet tall]… So the piece I was working on, when you enter you first walk into this enormous gray gallery type of space, with carpeted floor, white walls white ceiling. It looks like a white wall, only the white wall isn’t a wall, it just looks like one. So the mother and her son both stop at the edge of the carpet. He puts his hands up — and then he realized it’s not a wall. I realized that it works! I can leave! Children are the most open and see the best. The look on that little boy’s face was great, and I realized that. Those are the kinds of things you look for.”
I asked Wheeler if the ephemerality of his work and his spaces, how difficult they are to photograph and even collect had helped hurt his place in art history.
“I never worried so much about permanence because I make things that you experience, and then it’s in your mind. Most of my stuff is site specific or site-related, but I feel that’s what we do in life. We have first-hand experiences, and those are the ones we don’t forget. They stay with us and hopefully they’re meaningful enough that they’re with you the rest of your life. That’s pretty much what I’ve always been after. I’ve always tried to do that stuff that has an effect on you that you never forget the first time.”
Tomorrow: Where Wheeler is now, what he’s working on, and how he feels about what he calls “keeping away.” Previously: Re-introducing Doug Wheeler. Talking with Wheeler part one, two. LAT art critic William Wilson reviews a 1968 Wheeler show.
[Image at top: A 1971 Wheeler acylic-and-neon light encasement in the collection of the Ludwig Forum for International Art.]
The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reports that the Republican National Committee’s unusual expenditures aren’t limited to turning the governor of Alaska into Caribou Barbie. The RNC also just spent $6,000 on… art restoration? Details anyone?
Suddenly it’s not just art made by artists that’s hot, it’s stuff collected (and installed) by artists that’s hot. First example: Francis Alys’ Fabiola paintings, which are on view now at LACMA.
Also on view now: Rachel Whiteread’s dollhouses (left), at the MFA Boston.
Other artist-collections-o’-stuff that come to mind: Andy Warhol’s time capsules (the Warhol Museum put Time Capsule 21 online), William Christenberry’s old advertising signs…